North of 59

Written by Walt Rhodes
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Walt RhodesBenchmarks provide a measuring stick in life. A 16th birthday, graduation or 50-year wedding anniversary are prime examples. For travelers, crossing certain lines is the standard. The most obvious is someone sailing or flying across the Equator or International Date Line. Lines of latitude are also significant crossings. Two notable lines of latitude are the 49th and 60th parallels. The 49th is the border between the United States and Canada and the 60th is the border between the prairie provinces of Canada and the Northwest Territories and Nunavit of Canada. After two days of flying and now grounded by weather, we are holed up in Stony Rapids, SK, located north of the 59th parallel. Even though we won’t cross the 60th parallel, the only crew from the Lower 48 states operating in a more northern area is pilot-biologist Fred Roetker and his observer Caleb Spiegel in the Northwest Territories.

Stony Rapids is a “happening” northern town. Despite a population of only 250 people, the town features a hotel with a restaurant and a general store, which quintuples as a snowmobile and auto parts dealer, tackle shop, raw fur trading post, grocery store and airport fuel service. Located on the east end of Lake Athabasca at a series of rapids where the Fond Du Lac River spills into the lake, I’m guessing the town formed following repeated portages around the rapids.

We have finished our northern-most survey lines and are waiting for the weather to break so we can take our last line in Saskatchewan east towards Manitoba, and then turn south to Flin Flon. Habitat conditions look similar to last year, generally fair to good, and the number of birds appears to be about equal thus far. Continuing a trend seen earlier to the south, all species, including Canada geese, scaup, mallards, buffleheads, and surf scoters, all appear nicely paired and in territories.

We still have a solid week of surveying left in Manitoba and a 100-hour inspection is coming due for the airplane. We will begin down near The Pas, MB, and work north to almost Churchill, where the Discovery Channel is always filming polar bears. Given the long-term weather forecast, we will be bumping into a month on the road, a benchmark we don’t want to reach.

Snow overnight greeted us on 24 May along Transect 7 in Stratum 21 above Cree Lake in northern Saskatchewan. (Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS)

Snow overnight greeted us on 24 May along Transect 7 in Stratum 21 above Cree Lake in northern Saskatchewan. Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS

Our northern most line cuts across the Athabasca Sand Dunes, a lonely but strikingly beautiful landscape. (Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS)

Our northern most line cuts across the Athabasca Sand Dunes, a lonely but strikingly beautiful landscape. Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS

Loaded fuel drums sit ready in Stony Rapids, SK, for caching in the bush. (Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS)

Loaded fuel drums sit ready in Stony Rapids, SK, for caching in the bush. Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS

The town sign says it all. (Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS)

The town sign says it all. Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS

Another perspective of skimming across the snowy north. (Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS)

Another perspective of skimming across the snowy north. Photo by Walt Rhodes, USFWS